Professional Growth Update 2013

I changed positions half-way through this school year, from being a K-12 Principal to being a Divisional Math Consultant. Even with this switch, my goals for growth that I set for myself at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year remained the same:
1. Character
2. Community
3. Creativity
4. Competence

These goals have actually been at the core of my professional growth plans for the past few years. It is the details that I continue to reflect on and adjust. Though I have made my goals public in the past few years (through emails and conversations with my staff in my previous position as Principal), I haven’t yet made my reflections public. This year is the first year I will do so with my year-end reflections (“Annual Report”). It’s another step in me pushing myself to engage in more authentic learning and reflection. Twitter chats, blog posts, and MOOC explorations have grown my PLN and pushed my thinking throughout this and past years. So, if it truly does “take a village to raise a child” (educate someone, whatever that means), I need to engage the village in conversation on my reflection process as well. It is with this in mind that I invite your comments on what follows below.

I’ve been questioned in the past about why I place this category on my professional growth plan. For me, it’s a constant and very direct reminder to me that no matter what I do, no matter how “good” I may be in professional growth in other areas, this is the area that drives success in all other areas. As a leader, I need to model honesty, openness, learning (how to handle failure as well as success), integrity, equity, respect, empathy, and responsibility. Those descriptors are just a small part of what the make-up of a successful educational leader should be, but they are key (in my opinion) to developing community (with students, staff, parents), to creativity (can’t happen without openness!), and to competence. At some point, I will make mistakes. (I have in every position I have ever held.) That’s what being human is all about. How I handle those mistakes speaks volumes about my character, and it is those descriptors that I hope will be indicated in all of my interactions – whether handling mistakes, handling successes, or handling the “implementation dips” and daily conversations with people.

As an educator and a leader, I am part of a community. I am currently using the PRIME Leadership Framework from NCSM to guide my goals within the broader realm of building “community”.
Equity Leadership (principle #1 from NCSM) – “Ensure high expectations and access to meaningful (mathematics) learning for every student.” (brackets added by me)
Whether in mathematics or in any content area, I have been mulling over what it means to ensure equal access for all and equal expectations of all. Articles such as this article on poverty and streaming in Ontario and this one on equity and poverty issues push my thinking about the importance of common language amongst educators about courses and choices, particularly in high school. What message do we send regarding the math course choices available to Manitoba high school students? Are the messages the same from all – teachers, counselors, specialists, administrators, post-secondary institutions? Are the messages the same to all – immigrants, Aboriginals, children from families of high or low socio-economic status, males, females? The answers to these questions are an ongoing exploration of both quantitative data (district statistics on who is in what course, average grade attained) and qualitative data (interviews with students, parents, staff, post-secondary institutions).

Teaching and Learning Leadership (principle #2 from NCSM) – “Ensure high expectations and access to meaningful (mathematics) instruction every day.” (brackets added by me)
What exactly is meaningful instruction, particularly in mathematics? Whether we look at NCTM or WNCP or Manitoba-based curricula, the front matter of each of these documents focuses on processes or practices such as problem solving, visualization, use of technology, application and reasoning. Far too often, though, educators become bogged down in the pages of specific outcomes and neglect the front matter “big ideas”. Meaningful instruction, I believe, cannot occur if the focus is on the word “instruction”, particularly if this word implies “imparting knowledge”. For true meaningful “instruction” to occur, the focus should be on guiding learners on a journey, NOT “giving directions”. I try to model this approach as an educator and a leader. This year, reading Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” has given me another perspective on what guiding journeys looks like – particularly with her “growth mindset” emphasis.

What is creativity? How do we encourage this of our students, and of our staff? Ultimately, creativity and engagement are closely linked. One book I have recently read is The Element, Sir Ken Robinson’s book about finding your passion. That book, plus articles and posts on Google’s 20% time and Genius Hour inspire me. Apps like Dragonbox Algebra and Algebra Touch begin to nudge our thinking about what assumed prior knowledge is needed (or not). What does allowing students to be truly creative look like? What kinds of infrastructure, pedagogy, heutagogy shifts are needed to support them becoming truly creative at school? How do we push creativity and engagement (of students and teachers) in an environment of high school achievement tests?

As an educator and a leader, I need to (and want to!) keep current in both my research and knowledge base. I am using the PRIME Leadership Framework from NCSM to guide my goals in the broader realm of building “competence”.
Curriculum Leadership (principle #3 from NCSM) – “Ensure every lesson is relevant and meaningful (mathematics).” (brackets added by me)
This, ladies and gentlemen, is a tall order. So many notions are trapped within this concise statement. Relevance and meaning – are students being given the opportunity to see how they can apply their learning to real life? Is this happening at the end of a unit of study or from the beginning? I would suggest that true relevance and meaning occurs if this is at the front end of every lesson and every unit and embedded throughout. So the real questions we should be asking are: How successful we are at making lessons relevant and meaningful can be judged by the level of engagement of students – if they’re not participating, it’s not relevant or meaningful to them. That’s the beauty of children and adolescents – their message is clear through body language and participation level. They will definitely be engaged and find lessons relevant and meaningful if we allow *them* to make decisions about what questions to ask, and lead them in the exploration of the answers to those questions. (This ties right in with the creativity section above!) Again, this may be seen as challenging in a high school environment of achievement testing – but I believe it can still be done.

Books I have read this year that have helped me explore other people’s views on relevance and meaning (sometimes in mathematics, sometimes more generally in education) include Math Tools, Democracy’s Angels, and Mindset.

Assessment Leadership (principle #4 from NCSM) – “Ensure timely, accurate monitoring of student learning and adjustment of teacher instruction for improved student learning.”
Our district wonderfully supports assessment for learning with end-of-September “Strong Beginnings” days. Sets of diagnostic questions have been developed for K-9 that help with this process, and focus on conceptual understanding of mathematics. This helps identify specific needs of learners (whether struggling or gifted), and guides teachers in planning the school year. I am currently working on meshing the “look” of the grades 5-9 resources with the K-4 resources, including “page at a glance” compilations of class results and easy to navigate front-end tables of information linking assessment activities to curricular expectations (both of which are included in the K-4 teacher resources but not yet in the 5-9 resources). Plans are also underway for “Strong Endings” in the future, helping create the full picture of student learning and (hopefully) progress.

Two books that I keep coming back to on the topic of assessment are Damian Cooper’s Talk About Assessment pair (one book for K-8, one for high school). Some examples in these books are weaker than others, but I appreciate the attempt at providing content-specific examples of assessing for and as learning.

In all of this, I still remind myself of Maya Angelou’s words:



About tjthiessen

explorer, administrator, consultant, student, leader
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